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2008-9, ROH London, Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni


************** See Simon as Don Giovanni *************

From 5 October 2008 you can watch the film of Simon’s Royal Opera House Don Giovanni (filmed 8 September 2008) through the ROH website: http://www.roh.org.uk/video/

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte
Venue and Dates: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
Cast A – 8*, 10, 12, 15, 18 September 2008
Cast B – 27, 30 September, 2, 4 October 2008
*The 8 September is a special performance for Sun newspaper ticketholders – see below
Conductor: Sir Charles MacKerras (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept)
Antonio Pappano (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Director: Francesca Zambello
Sets: Maria Bjørnson
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Choreography: Steven Mear
Performers: A double-cast revival
Don Giovanni : Simon Keenlyside (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Mariusz Kwiecien (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Leporello : Kyle Ketelsen (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Lorenzo Regazzo (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Donna Anna : Marina Poplavskaya (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Patrizia Ciofi (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Donna Elvira : Joyce DiDonato (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Emma Bell (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Ottavio : Ramon Vargas (10, 12, 15 Sept)/ Robert Murray (18 Sept) / Ian Bostridge (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Commendatore : Eric Halfvarson
Zerlina : Miah Persson (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Rebecca Evans (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)
Masetto : Robert Gleadow (10, 12, 15, 18 Sept) / Alex Esposito (27, 30 Sept, 2, 4 Oct)





The Opening Night of this production ( 8 September 2008) was screened live across the UK and Europe and this broadcast will be available for all to see for free at the ROH website from 5 Oct 2008.

From the New York Times, 19 September 2008

The Royal Opera House in London will present a full-length opera online for the first time beginning Oct. 5, when audiences will be able to log on to the company’s Web site and watch a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” As part of the introduction of the site, the company will make it possible to view other complete operas and ballets online. The production of “Don Giovanni,” filmed on Sept. 8, will be available free of charge in its entirety and will feature subtitles, listening notes and a podcast with the director Francesca Zambello. The site also features archival material, a photo library and first-night cast lists dating to 1946. Link: http://www.roh.org.uk/


*the 8 September is a special performance for Sun newspaper ticketholders

“…At The Sun we believe everyone should at least have the chance to experience the opera. So we’ve teamed up with the Helen Hamlyn Trust to create a night at the opera just for Sun readers.” Derek Brown, The Sun, 30 July 2008

Click the photo below to read the whole article and the Sun’s inimitable “Guide to Don Giovanni”





.Erica Jeal, The Guardian, 10 September 2008


Rating: Four out of five stars

“Phew,” exclaims Don Giovanni as, amid jets of flame, he is dragged to damnation in Mozart’s opera. “What a scorcher!” Maybe it’s a loose translation, but it fitted the mood as the Royal Opera gave over the opening night of its season to an audience recruited through the Sun, a welcome return of the subsidised Hamlyn nights for first-time opera-goers.

The plan to coax in a genuinely new audience seemed to have worked. A younger, less hairsprayed crowd greeted Da Ponte’s jokes with genuine laughter, having already received the news that the Donna Anna, Marina Poplavskaya, “wanted us to know” she had a cold with the baffled amusement such announcements probably deserve.

Poplavskaya was not at her best, sounding squally, and her subdued bow showed she knew as much. Otherwise, if there was the suspicion that this cast has been put together with an eye to the simultaneous cinema relays – the ROH finally getting in on the Met’s game – it was impossible to mind. Simon Keenlyside’s mercurial Giovanni is a tour de force, but Kyle Ketelsen’s vivid Leporello matches him, and even Masetto makes an impression as sung by Robert Gleadow. The real star, though, is Joyce DiDonato, singing her first Elvira and nailing even the topmost notes.

Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production is monumental but dull, clunky and even frustrating – the huge pointing finger that swings as the dead Commendatore speaks is invisible to most of the audience. The real guiding hand is that of Charles Mackerras: the orchestra he conducts is, surprisingly, occasionally rough-edged but as invigorated as the singers, and he paces the long score irresistibly. Tonight, Covent Garden opens its doors again to its regulars. But its moment in the Sun? A super soaraway success.


Agnes Kory, Musicalcriticism.com, 9 September 2008


Rating: Four out of five stars

The 2008-09 Royal Opera House season started with a difference.

The opening night, a performance of  Mozart’s Don Giovanni, was meant to be available only for readers of the Sun newspaper who in turn specified availability only for those who were new to opera. All seats had been bought by the Sun who then sold on the seats for £5 – £30 each (therefore for less than a fifth of the regular prize) to first time opera goers. To broaden the appeal further, the performance was relayed to 113 cinemas across the UK and Europe. Generous financial support provided by the Helen Hamlyn Trust made the event financially viable. The evening was dedicated to the memory of the late Lord Hamlyn.

Before the performance Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, appeared in front of the curtains and greeted the audience of first-timers. Hall received an enthusiastic applause – but from whom? It was hard to find Sun readers among the audience, and first-timers, too, were far and few between. Some people left after the interval: apparently they were genuine first-timers. It is true that my chance to interview people among the audience were limited. But a report shown on BBC 1’s Breakfast show the following morning came to a similar conclusion. They presented a member of the audience who rejected the notion of the Sun because (as he repeated three times) he was a Guardian reader. And there were both those who had been to opera before and some who had not.

So who was the audience for the opening night of the season? Mostly knowledgeable but impoverished opera lovers who hugely appreciated the opportunity to attend within their financial means. I spoke to many! Of the first timers few are likely to return – even with financial assistance – as money is not the sole attribute to the appreciation of opera. When school teachers co-operate with the ROH’s educational department (and prepare their pupils properly for relevant opera performances), the ROH’s ongoing school matinees are likely to make a more significant contribution to the audience of the future. In the meantime, hopefully low-income people will have further opportunities to enjoy such magnificent ROH opera performances as Don Giovanni was on this opening night.

Sir Charles Mackerras’ knowledge and flair for Mozart’s style was evident throughout. I have never heard such stylish rendering of the stage band music as on this occasion. Mackerras’s tempi were exemplary all the way through, thus allowing the singers and orchestra to live Mozart’s phrases, shapes, emotions and humour. And rhythm, the motor of all music, is always strongly manifested in Mackerras’ performances.

Simon Keenlyside’s Don Giovanni is a virtuoso performance. His portrayal of the daring and devilish Don is mesmerising, his near acrobatic skills are used to great effect and he sings beautifully. His serenade to Elvira’s maid – the Canzonetta ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ – was almost heartbreaking.

The other great singer on stage was Eric Halfvarson in the role of the Commendatore. The interaction between Keenlyside and Halfvarson created a rare artistic unity in both of their encounters, both of which end in dramatic death: the Commendatore dies at the beginning of the opera and he takes the not unwilling Don with him at the end. Francesca Zambello’s directional concept emphasizes the strength of this relationship but without two such great singers (and Mackerras’ musical support) these encounters would have lost their significance. The dazzling pyrotechnics at the final death scene were impressive but the high drama of these moments were supplied by Mackerras, Halfvarson and Keenlyside.

Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), too, was an excellent partner to Keenlyside’s Don. His singing was immaculate and his acting supportive as, indeed, his character had to be to the Don.

To me it is not clear why Marina Poplavskaya, singing the role of Donna Anna, felt the need to notify the audience about her sinus infection. She sounded in good vocal form, although initially a few of her notes were not perfectly pitched. These kind of announcements are more frequent in opera houses than I would wish for. One can either perform (in which case why make the audience uneasy with the announcement?) or not (in which case let us hear the understudy, who surely would love to perform).

Full praise goes to Joyce DiDonato for her debut in the role of the fiery but vulnerable Donna Elvira. Ramón Vargas delivered an excellent vocal and musical performance but with a boring character like Don Ottavio there is not much one can do in the acting department. Miah Persson’s Zerlina was more authorative than innocent but both her and Robert Gleadow (Masetto) sang to a high standard.

I was puzzled about director Francesca Zambello’s handling of the choir. At times they appear on stage for no apparent reason. When the Don invites the statue for dinner, they just freeze: presumably they represent statues, but they distract from the story line.

I liked the idea of the colour of costumes, designed by the late Maria Björnson, signifying characters in the drama. Don Giovanni wore hellish red and purple, and so did his servants and musicians. Leporello was greyish – what else can a sidekick be? – although red and purple when disguised as the Don. The aristocrats – Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira – wore turquoise or blue although there were some variations during the plot. The noble Commendatore was shown in black and white, and finally also in silver. I am not sure why the peasants – Zerlina, Masetto and the group of workers – wore white all way through: was this meant to be a sign of innocence or was white the colour of working clothes? I was fully confused when, in the concluding sextet, all the characters wore white: were they purified by the Don’s death?

In spite of the few confusing moments in the production, this is a great performance to cherish.



Richard Morrison, The Times, 9 September 2008


Rating: Three out of five stars

If you didn’t know something odd was going on at the Royal Opera House, the big red open-top bus parked outside and plastered with the logo of the nation’s top-selling newspaper might have given you a clue. Apart from a few toffee-nosed opera critics, yours truly included, every member of the audience for this show — the opening night of the Royal Opera’s new season — was supposedly a reader of The Sun.

That, at least, was the intention of the year’s most audacious, and certainly most controversial, marketing wheeze — by which tickets vastly subsidised by the Hamlyn Trust were offered for sale only through that one newspaper’s website. “It was The Sun wot found you,” quipped Tony Hall, Covent Garden’s chief executive, in a pre-performance speech.

Looking round, however, I can’t say that I detected any vast seismic shift in the social, ethnic or generational mix of the audience. In the Floral Hall, predominantly white, well-dressed, middle-aged people quaffed bubbly, just like normal.

What was noticeably different was the reaction to the performance itself. Although The Sun had prepared its readers with its own inimitable introduction to the world of Mozart (“dirtier than Amy Winehouse’s beehive, riper than a full-on effing rant by Gordon Ramsay and more violent than a Tarantino bloodfest”), the prolonged laughs triggered by the black ironies of Da Ponte’s libretto and the audible gasps at the heartless misogyny of Giovanni himself suggested an audience utterly gripped by its first encounter with this darkest of 18th-century operas.

That was encouraging. But if there were 2,000 operatic virgins in Covent Garden last night, I wish they had heard more of the world-class singing for which the place is famed. Until his final encounter with Eric Halfvarson’s staunch Commendatore (when Francesca Zambello’s mundane 2002 staging finally caught fire, in every sense), Simon Keenlyside did not muster either the vocal weight or enough demonic spirit to convince as Giovanni. Impish charm and a hunky torso aren’t quite enough. And there was disappointingly lacklustre singing from Miah Persson (Zerlina) and an ailing Marina Poplavskaya (Anna) too.

Kyle Ketelsen played Leporello mostly for cheap laughs and Ramón Vargas sounded as stolid as he looked as Ottavio. Only the Elvira of the irrepressible Joyce DiDonato matched the energy that Sir Charles Mackerras generated from the orchestra.

That was a pity. Some 113 cinemas in Britain and Europe took a live relay of last night’s performance. It wasn’t a bad advertisement for grand opera. But riper than a full-on effing rant by Gordon Ramsay? I’m afraid not.


Michael Church, The Independent, 10 September 2008


Rating: Four out of five stars

When the Royal Opera House announced it was doing a deal with The Sun to bring in a new kind of audience for the opening night of the autumn season, there was much sneering in some quarters, with accusations that it was being “patronising” and “slumming it” being bandied about. That it was simultaneously going to broadcast the event live to a hundred cinemas just compounded the crime. What, piping Don Giovanni to the proles? Pearls before swine!

The evening opened with a graceful speech in which ROH chief executive Tony Hall welcomed the new audience, hoped they would develop a taste for this art, and thanked the Helen Hamlyn Trust for making this outreach possible. Then the curtain went up. And guess what? Unusually, not a single mobile went off in the course of the evening, nor did one see, as one often does in the top-price stalls, corporate guests focusing on their BlackBerrys rather than the stage. If this was The Sun’s effect, let’s have more of it.

And what a perfect show to usher in this hopeful new era. Francesca Zambello’s production may have a wonky conclusion – a giant “it could be you” hand swinging down from the heavens, and a saucy tableau showing the Don still getting his oats in Hell – but it’s strong on vigour and verisimilitude, and it lays bare the bold psychology embedded in the score.

Never before have I heard Donna Anna’s account of her attempted rape sung as convincingly as Marina Poplavskaya sings it here. Indeed, with the exception of Ramon Vargas as an underpowered, awkward Don Ottavio, the cast made wonderful sense of the drama. Kyle Ketelsen was an unusually charismatic Leporello, Joyce DiDonato made a brilliantly deranged and vengeful Donna Elvira, while Miah Persson’s beautifully sung Zerlina radiated earthy good sense – though I did wonder, again, why Zambello’s peasants don’t put on finery for their wedding. Only mad people get married in calico.

But if the show had two heroes, one was in the pit: the 83-year-old Sir Charles Mackerras conducted with such subtlety and verve that the action felt spring-heeled. The other hero was Simon Keenlyside, whose Don Giovanni was driven by a compulsive sexual hunger: his cruelty to male rivals was as pathological as his cruelty to female conquests, the personification of rancid negativity. Stripped naked at the end, he cut a pretty miserable figure, but his voice still carried a baleful authority.

2008_Don_Giovanni_ROH_73Journey to hell is flaming excellent

Jon Gaunt, The Sun, 9 September 2008


[There is also an article about the evening on this webpage]

I’VE had a few jobs in my time – everything from Tesco shelf stacker to barman, through to writing for Emmerdale. But my appointment as The Sun’s unofficial opera reviewer came as a complete surprise. I may have the girth of an opera singer but I can hold a tune about as well as Paul Robinson can catch a ball. So I approached the Royal Opera House with trepidation.

I needn’t have worried. This production was brilliant, and myself and thousands of Sun readers proved opera can be about more than Pavarotti at the World Cup.

Don Giovanni was played by a bloke who looked like a cross between ex-Arsenal star Emmanuel Petit and middle-of-the-road singer Michael Bolton.


However, Giovanni’s sexual exploits were certainly not MOR as his sexual shenanigans make the average Premier League player look like he’s got morals, and the plots of our most torrid soaps seem tame.

After sleeping with more women than a plane-load of yobbos on a Faliraki fortnight, Don Giovanni, like all soap opera villains, gets his just deserts.

But instead of being sent to regional panto, he’s sent to hell.  This scene is spectacular as the whole stage is filled with fire. It’s reminiscent of a Take That concert – but this is one fire you wouldn’t want to relight.

It’s an incredible ending with an unexpected comic twist featuring a nude Don Giovanni and his latest conquest in the underworld.

The whole production was sung in Italian but there were surtitles above the stage so you understood what was going on.

To be honest, it was best to sit back and let the power of the music and the visuals wash over you. The staging was incredible and the singing quite simply sublime.

One of the most amazing things for a virgin opera-goer like me was the sudden realisation that everything I was hearing was being created by humans playing instruments, with no amplification and no computers.

The Sun crowd, once over the threshold, weren’t intimidated by the grand setting and soon really got into the action and were laughing at the jokes and applauding the singing.

I don’t think the opera house had ever seen anything quite like it – from the famous Sun double decker bus at the front door to the bevy of Page 3 beauties in long gowns who greeted us, through to the enthusiastic reception the cast received.

We’re constantly told theatre and opera isn’t for the likes of us, but the Royal Opera House, The Sun and of course the Helen Hamlyn Trust should be congratulated for trying to make opera accessible to all by subsidising the tickets for this one-off performance.

After all, it is people like us who pay our taxes and buy the Lottery tickets that subsidise places like this.

Why shouldn’t we be given the chance to experience it for ourselves?

As you know, I love my Shakespeare – but this was the first time I had been to the opera and it blew me away.

So would I go again? Probably.

Should you go at least once? Definitely.


Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard,  9 September 2008


Bonking Don brings Mozart to the masses

Getting up to what he shouldn’t: Simon Keenleyside is delicious as Don Giovanni despite an undelicious long red wig

“Fancy an evening of sex and violence?” the Sun asked its readers, urging them to satisfy their desires with a night at the opera. Actually some of us have been hanging around the red plush for years and landed nothing more than a pinch on the bottom and even that was last century.

But with an eye to a chance (top price £30), more than 2,000 of them said yes and filled the Royal Opera House for a revival of Francesca Zambello’s staging of Don Giovanni, starring the delicious Simon Keenlyside in an undelicious long red wig, and with Charles Mackerras, ever wise and brisk, conducting.

Some had checked out the plot on Wikipedia. Others arrived refreshingly untrammelled by knowledge. “So Mozart wrote the music,” pondered the woman behind me. “Is there a story, too? Really? Well what a clever, old bugger he was.”

“What’s it about?” asked her grown-up son. “Probably some bloke bonking where he shouldn’t of,” mum replied, with pithy accuracy.

Keenlyside has sung the title role of the illicit bonker — as Mozart’s great anti‑hero must henceforth be known — in this production before, with the excellent, droll Kyle Ketelsen back as Leporello.

As Donna Anna, a majestic Marina Poplavskaya (overheard at the interval: “What did you think of her?” “Lovely hair”) had a bad throat infection but did indeed have lovely hair. Miah Persson was nervous in her first Zerlina but had lively support from Robert Gleadow’s Masetto.

Joyce di Donato was a gripping Elvira, the kind of love-crazed woman who might have cut off Don Giovanni’s trouser legs had they not stopped at the knee already.

The audience was distinguishable from the normal rabble merely by being better dressed and slightly younger. No one dribbled or waved football rattles, despite dire warnings from media doom-mongers. The only toffs were the sort that come in wrappers. What next? Bingo players? Rat catchers? As social engineering goes, it was hardly subtle. But what a coup.


Siobhan Murphy, Metro, 10 September 2008

Rating: Four out of Five stars

The Royal Opera’s big social experiment – offering reduced night tickets exclusively to readers of the Sun – certainly produced a packed house. Despite a lingering suspicion it was largely made up of regular ROH-goers who’d just bought the paper for cheap tickets, the crowd was noticeably younger and buzzier.

Francesca Zambello’s Don Giovanni is on its third revival here: a tried and tested production, then, although the men’s-urinal-cum-Catholic-shrine set is disconcerting, as is the National Lottery finger damning Mozart’s rapacious womaniser. As Metro’s own social experiment (given I know nothing about opera) two halves of 90 minutes proved testing but it was surprisingly racy good fun.

Simon Keenlyside’s calculating Don G is both believably seductive and chillingly menacing; comic rapport with his servant (Kyle Ketelsen) is also spot-on. But it’s the dynamic between his wronged women that is most interesting. US mezzo Joyce DiDonato debuts as Donna Elvira and makes her at once gloriously feisty and tragically enamoured of the ultimate bad boy.

Marina Poplavskaya as Donna Anna gives an aching portrayal of righteous grief, and Miah Persson makes peasant girl Zerlina a crafty minx, scrambling for advantage. But united against Don Giovanni at the end, they offer quite a display of girl power.


Farah Nayeri, Bloomberg, 9 Sept 2008


Champagne-Sipping Sun Readers Trade Topless Models for Opera

Sept. 9 (Bloomberg) — Linda Allen buys the Sun newspaper for the crosswords, a hobby that landed her and her sisters last night at the Royal Opera House for the first time.

Allen, 59, a carer for the elderly in Woodley, west of London, was one of hundreds of Sun readers who won the right to buy subsidized tickets to the first night of the opera house’s new season. With sisters Shirley and Pauline, she watched from choice balcony seats costing 30 pounds ($53) each as Charles Mackerras conducted Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” A top-price balcony ticket for tonight’s performance costs 190 pounds.

“I’d give it, say, 8 out of 10,” said Allen, dressed in a white silk blouse and tight new boots, during the intermission. “I’m waiting for something that’s going to be sentimental, and the tears.”

She said she will definitely return. “I’m really glad that I can say that I’ve been to the opera house.” Next time, she said, “I’ll have the cheap seat.”

Last night’s special offer, paid for by the Helen Hamlyn Trust and advertised in the Sun in July, gave readers the chance to enter a draw for up to four tickets, priced between 7.50 pounds and 30 pounds, for the production, directed by Francesca Zambello. To make sure they were first-timers, applicants already on the opera-house database were excluded.

The initiative is part of the Royal Opera’s efforts to pull in new audiences and fight its reputation as an expensive, elitist institution.

“I hope for all of you that this is the start of a relationship,” Royal Opera House Chief Executive Tony Hall said in a preliminary speech on stage. “Please come back.”

Old Timers

Many of the people in the Sept. 8 audience hardly seemed first-timers, let alone regular readers of the Sun, Britain’s most popular tabloid newspaper, known for its pictures of topless women on page 3.

One Royal Opera habitue attending was 21-year-old Cambridge University music student John Perkins, who defined himself as an occasional Sun reader.

“I really like `Don Giovanni’ and my friend got me tickets,” he said.

Perkins said he usually came to “the strange, wacky modern music and stuff,” and always got the cheapest seats. He found the evening’s production “not what I expected,” compared to other productions of the Mozart opera he’d seen, and singled out the “strange scenery.”

Some of those experiencing their first Royal Opera night also seemed to be bitten by the bug.

TV Opera

In the stalls with three family members was 59-year-old Godfrey Henwood, a landscape gardener from Stevenage in Hertfordshire who was tipped off about the Sun offer by a friend. Henwood, who has seen operas at the Royal Albert Hall and never misses opera broadcasts on television, said the show was “excellent value.”

“It’s the first time we’ve come to an evening performance here,” said Henwood. “We’re impressed and we’ll probably come again.”

For the unmarried Allen, the story of the serial philanderer had added resonance: She said she had also fallen prey to a Don Giovanni. Did Simon Keenlyside, the long-haired hunk in the title role, bring back personal memories, then?

“Oh, no,” she said, sipping her flute of champagne. “There’s no Guinness going, is there?”


David Gutman, The Stage, 9 September 2008


Introduced on stage by chief executive Tony Hall, this opening night of the 2008/9 season was a first for the audience-widening initiative sponsored by Helen Hamlyn and spearheaded in unlikely partnership with The Sun newspaper.

Don Giovanni makes an astute choice for the venture. Notwithstanding some obtuse designs by Maria Bjornson, including a doll-like madonna and a giant admonitory finger, Francesca Zambello’s production, first seen in 2002, is a sensual crowd-pleaser. With subtler intimacies left to fend for themselves, the denouement at least is spectacular, the flames of hell noisily engulfing what looks to be the bath house of a Roman villa. Earlier scenes are set in and around a variably positioned curved structure upon which the main protagonist clambers over athletically.

Simon Keenlyside is back in the role, a great draw not least for the patrons of 100-plus cinemas taking a live relay. Kyle Ketelsen’s experienced Leporello is scarcely less fine and young Robert Gleadow makes an unusually virile Masetto in a notable role debut for him. Eric Halfvarson is the solid Commendatore.

Only the traditionally Italian voice and bearing of the Don Ottavio, Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, doesn’t quite fit. The costumes, unlike the sets, are vaguely in period, the wigs unflattering.

Marina Poplavskaya reprises her Donna Anna, a portrayal of restraint and regal bearing, well sung despite a throat infection. In a further pair of notable role debuts, Miah Persson offers considerable vocal charm and natural acting as a class-conscious Zerlina, while Joyce DiDonato adjusts her honeyed bel canto mezzo to project the desperation of a Donna Elvira costumed to resemble Miss Havisham.

In the pit we are in experienced hands. Sparing with vibrato and eschewing refinement for refinement’s sake, Mackerras can seem determined to outpace his singers, yet he sanctions an unusually gentle and seductive La ci darem la mano – there’s always humanity as well as buoyancy in his approach.

2008_Don_Giovanni_ROH_71Keith McDonnell, MusicOMH, 9 September 2008


Rating: Four out of five stars

In Tony Hall’s words ‘It was the Sun wot got you here’ – a prophetic start to the Royal Opera’s 08/09 Season as the auditorium was full of opera virgins who had applied for tickets through the soaraway Sun.

Due to the generosity of the Helen Hamlyn Trust, top tickets were a snip at £30 – but will these Sun readers return when they have to fork out £180 for a ticket?

It’s unlikely, but if this performance of Don Giovanni really was your first time at the opera then you were lucky but, and this is a big but, it remains unclear whether an audience unfamiliar with the idiom would actually recognise that this was probably as good as it gets, vocally at least, as far as this opera is concerned.

Apart from a couple of serial boiled sweet abusers positioned a few rows behind me in the Balcony, the audience was attentive, laughed in all the right places, clapped in a couple of wrong ones and were genuinely enthusiastic at the final curtain – and rightly so as here was a performance of this opera to cherish. The vocal honours went to Joyce diDonato’s first-ever Elvira. Although a mezzo she tackled the high-lying tessitura of the role fearlessly and polished off the difficulties of ‘Mi tradi’ without turning a hair. Dramatically she was spot on and although she mentioned in a recent interview that there wasn’t a huge amount of rehearsal time for this revival it didn’t show.

Marina Poplavskaya returned as Donna Anna, funnily enough making a better impression than she had in the last revival despite an announced sinus infection. She sounded a little out of sorts in the high lying passages of ‘Non mi dir’ but her middle-register seemed to have acquired a sultry, smoky timbre. Miah Persson confirmed her Mozart credentials with a sumptuously-toned Zerlina and was ably partnered by a strongly-voiced Robert Gleadow as Masetto. Ramon Vargas was a virile sounding Don Ottavio whilst Eric Halfvarson boomed more effectively than any other Commendatore I’ve encountered in the theatre.

Returning as Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello, Simon Keenlyside and Kyle Ketelsen came close to stealing the show. Keenlyside’s baritone is becoming darker and his demonic moments had plenty of bite, yet he was more than capable of seducing the sternest heart with a beautifully judged, limpid rendition of ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’. The rapport between him and Ketelsen, on fine form, was palpable and proved to be the lynchpin of the performance. In the pit Sir Charles Mackerras proved yet again that he is a peerless Mozartian, eliciting wonderfully alert, crisp playing from the orchestra.


Kevin Rogers, classicalsource.com


“An evening of firsts”. Royal Opera’s Chief Executive Tony Hall’s description of this performance of “Don Giovanni”. It was the first night of Royal Opera’s new season; it was the first time the Royal Opera was being broadcast live to over one-hundred cinemas across Europe; and, more importantly for the Royal Opera’s board, it seems, most of the audience were first-timers. I have another “first” for Mr Hall: it was the first Opening Night when I have seen so many empty seats!

To attract this “new” audience, advertisements were placed in “The Sun” newspaper inviting applications to a ballot for up to four highly-discounted tickets: a top price of £30.00 instead of £195.00. There was also a glass of “sparkling wine” for every ticket holder. Wandering through the House I spotted many people carrying newspapers but none were “The Sun”! Many even admitted to me as to never having read the “trashy Sun” except for the one occasion to get hold of these tickets. Attracting new audience members is to be applauded. But, to exclude from the Opening Night the many that pay lots of money to this institution that we love and care dearly about is an utter disgrace.

Tony Hall’s ‘aim’ is this: “to get that buzzy cool crowd to come in”. To have a man of his age use these words is, frankly, embarrassing. It is also flawed. The Royal Opera should not be seeking out a specific audience; handing out cheap or free tickets for performances to people that do not appreciate the Art wastes everyone’s time. Quite a few left at ‘half time’ on this particular evening. Many claim that the tickets for opera are expensive. Some are, but a great many are less than £50.00. How much does it cost to see a Premier League football match?

To the opera itself. Magnificent playing and some superb singing were once again let down by this most dreary production. It is plain boring and wholly unsupportive of the story and drama: it should have been retired after its first outing. The set consists of a curved rotating wall with an image of the Virgin Mary on one side. Some characters wander up and down the side and across the top. The view afforded the audience at a glancing angle must be dreadful because the viewing area of the stage is framed, blocking the view of many. The introduction of the Commendatore at is laughable, and people did! Everything about the production seems cheap, perhaps saving money for the gas bill for the pyrotechnics at the end: as Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell, flames roar and most of the stage is ablaze.

One consolation of having a mundane set is that one can concentrate on the music-making and it was here that an energised Sir Charles Mackerras gave the necessary shot in the arm. The overture set a terrific start and the set-piece that is the penultimate scene was rendered with bone-chilling effect. Where necessary the orchestra drove the action along. Never once did Don Giovanni’s endless attempts to seduce falter. Some of the most tender and heartfelt of emotions came out of the pit.

Towering above the drama, figuratively, is the Commendatore, and the voice that Eric Halfvarson boomed made all take note. He was a highlight in the Royal Opera’s recent “Don Carlos” as the Grand Inquisitor and here that same inherent authority pervaded the House. “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti” (Don Giovanni, you invited me) was given an unusual rasping that was wholly appropriate.

Simon Keenlyside led the strong cast. He created the role of Don Giovanni for this production in 2002 and he drew obvious pleasure from his swaggering and lecherous character. What is absent in the characterisation is the idea of Don Giovanni being the ultimate Romantic hero, the person who defies the norms of life’s boundaries. Lorenzo Da Ponte gave the subtitle dramma giocoso, yet here it was definitely opera buffa. The Don’s defiance at the end did not live up to the words sung. However, the revelry invested in “Fin ch’han dal vino” (Now prepare a great feast) and the conniving of “Metà di voi qua vadano” (Let half of you go this way) found Keenlyside in his deceitful and chauvinistic element.

His comic foil was Kyle Ketelson. Forever at the Don’s elbow, helping his master out of difficult situations, the two together acted so very well and anticipated each other with seeming ease. The supper invitation for the Commendatore’s statue – “O statua gentilissima” (O most noble statue) – was comedic yet tinged with awe, capturing perfectly the unfathomable situation that the duo found themselves in.

Chasing the murderous Don is the Commendatore’s daughter. Her realisation that this man is her father’s murderer allowed Marina Poplavskaya’s demands to her betrothed (Don Ottavio) for vengeance to find powerful expression, with her dramtic soprano being matched by the emotions and words. Elvira, as the demands of this production expect, was a mad obsessive, ranting about Giovanni’s lecherous nature at anyone who would listen to her. This could have made her annoying and so it is to Joyce DiDonato’s musicianship that one could see beyond this. In a similar way, the production also ruined the character of Don Ottavio. He is lifeless here, and this is no fault of Ramón Vargos, whose melting and heroic tenor rose above the ineptness of his character.

As the country bumpkins, Zerlina and her betrothed Masetto were the image of true love. There are tests on the way but in the end their love and trust for each other win out. Robert Gleadow was a little stiff at first but he soon gathered himself and gave a heart-warming portrayal whereas Miah Persson’s innocent study of Zerlina was vivid.

There is a lot of pleasure to be got out of this revival yet one suspects that the staging left a lot of the neophytes in the audience bewildered. A much better opera would have been “La bohème”, particularly in the Royal Opera’s glorious staging!


Anthony Holden, The Observer, 14 September 2008


Dirty Don lets down the masses

Two thousand Sun readers turned up to sample the delights of the Royal Opera House. What a pity this Don Giovanni was so dull

‘Sex, death, booze, bribery, revenge, ghosts… who says opera is boring?’ yelled the Sun, unexpectedly joining ranks with non-elitist opera-manes. Soon, no doubt, some shapely Donna Elvira will bare all on Page 3, wondering where on the Costa del Sol to track down that hunky, rat-fink Don she bonked in Burgos. ‘The truth is,’ enthused Murdoch’s excited organ, ‘most operas are dirtier than Amy Winehouse’s beehive, riper than a full-on effing rant by Gordon Ramsay and more violent than a Tarantino bloodfest.’ Not in Francesca Zambello’s dreary production of Don Giovanni, they aren’t, but more of that later.

Last Monday evening an open-topped double-decker bus sporting the Sun’s logo stood on the pavement outside the Royal Opera House to reveal the truth behind the paper’s surprising new-found zeal. Sun-red balloons flew aloft to celebrate Covent Garden’s startling decision to reserve all seats for Mozart’s super, soaraway bonk-fest, the opening night of its new season, for Sun readers. Thanks to a Hamlyn subsidy, 2,200 tickets normally costing as much as £200 were theirs for as little as £7.50 or £30 top whack.

I found a few Guardianistas lurking amid the throng – shameless welfare-scroungers who’d bought the Sun one day in July to qualify for this sizzling discount. I also met a few bona fide red-top readers, mostly first-time operagoers, including a charming family from Nottingham who had snagged a four-seater box for £50. All were turned out in their Sunday best and proved duly attentive. They seemed to love every minute, laughing at Da Ponte’s jokes (usually, thanks to the sur-titles, before they’d been made) and applauding in the right places (including, like the usual first-night corporate crowd, the wrong one in the middle of the catalogue aria).

They were treated to wonderfully dramatic singing, especially from Simon Keenlyside as the dirty Don and Joyce DiDonato as the duped Elvira. Pleading illness, Marina Poplavskaya made an adequate Anna until she fell foul of ‘Non mi dir’, but Kyle Ketelsen proved a lively Leporello, Ramon Vargas a manly Ottavio and Jette Parker Young Artist Robert Gleadow an unusually forceful Masetto to Miah Persson’s sprightly Zerlina. Charles Mackerras conducted with his customary Mozartian dash.

How tragic, therefore, that all those first-timers will think opera stagings are as drab, at times perversely so, as Zambello’s feeble take on this masterwork. Any Italian speakers among them will have heard the terrified Leporello singing ‘Look, his head is nodding!’ about a statue that wasn’t there (as fudged in the sur-titles). How can any director of this ‘Stone Guest’ classic come up with an empty plinth for the Commendatore’s tomb, substituting glimpses of what turns out to be a Lottery-style Fickle Finger of Fate? This, I am told, caused bafflement in at least one of the 113 cinemas throughout the country where the performance was being shown live.

Unlike Bryn Terfel in the original 2002 production, Keenlyside displays his celebrated athletic skills by climbing the wall in a valiant attempt at the Act 1 escape. Topless for the closing scene, he also appears completely naked, his essentials concealed by a Sun-style nude damsel, in a closing tableau also wisely eschewed by Terfel. Next time Covent Garden chooses to offer its wares to the wide-eyed masses, let’s hope it comes up with a proper staging that really shows them how exciting opera can be.


Mark Berry, Musicweb, 12 September 2008


I have until now remained steadfastly sceptical, or downright hostile, concerning Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart. His widely-praised Figaro earlier this year had seemed to me mercilessly hard-driven and often far too fast for the singers to be able to project the words, let alone the music. In a sense, it had mirrored David McVicar’s irritating, manic production, but this had seemed more coincidence than shared (seriously flawed) approach. I retain my incomprehension at why one would employ natural brass instruments; their rasping sound, especially during the Overture, adds nothing but coarseness. And there were occasions when I worried about speeds. To stick with the Overture – and its counterpart in the Stone Guest Scene – one can play alla breve without robbing the music of its cataclysmic grandeur. Here it sounded more like the opening of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto than the voice of something eternal and unworldly: not an uninteresting link to make but nevertheless robbing the music of its astounding proto-Romanticism. Where would Romanticism, let alone Romantic music, be without Don Giovanni? There is no wonder that E.T.A. Hoffmann delivered a panegyric to this ‘opera of all operas’. However, there was much to admire elsewhere. Whereas the strings had often sounded wiry and under-nourished in Figaro, that was not the case here; nor did they stint unduly on vibrato. I should have preferred greater orchestral weight, as Daniel Barenboim had provided in a miraculous Berlin performance last December, but at least lightness was not now confused with inconsequentiality. Tempi were mostly sensible – and varied. There was even at times, if not so often as I might have liked, a graceful yielding I should have considered inconceivable from prior experience. Perhaps above all there was a dramatic drive, an attentiveness to the drama, which I had previously found to be confused with a headlong rush to the finishing line.

However, I was a little disappointed that we heard the ‘traditional’ composite version of the work. I am no purist when it comes to such matters and appreciate that many singers will relish, perhaps even insist upon, their additional arias. There may even be occasions when the production facilitates use of this version (thankfully without the dreadful, rarely-heard duet between Zerlina and Leporello), although not here. The Prague version, however, almost always maintains a dramatic superiority over that for Vienna or any composite. Additional arias, however heart-rendingly beautiful, undeniably hold up the action. To use the composite version also seems to me to sit a little uneasily with any claims to ‘authenticity’ – although I suppose the accusation might well be turned round upon me, to say that preference for Prague might sit uneasily with reverence for tradition.

There remain many conductors from the past and a few from the present whom I should prefer to hear in Mozart, ranging from Furtwängler, Klemperer, Böhm, and Giulini, to Barenboim, Colin Davis, and Riccardo Muti. (These are examples, not an exhaustive list.) Yet I shall now be interested rather than reluctant to hear Mackerras again. He was of course helped by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. It might not have sounded as it had for Così fan tutte under Davis – never have I heard a better Mozart performance, although it was betrayed by a crass production – but there was some fine playing, not least from the woodwind. I may disagree with Mackerras, as I often do with Nikolaus Harnoncourt; that should not entail automatic disregard. Contrast this with the cynical, marketing-led exhibitionism of, say, a René Jacobs or a Roger Norrington: ‘The wisdom of tradition is naught. Let us strike up a brazenly ugly noise; let us rid the music of any meaning, let alone beauty, and show the world or at least the gullible how it must be done. In other words, let us create a provocation.’ The distinction between musical intelligence and charlatanry is clear.

There was certainly no charlatanry when it came to the singers. Simon Keenlyside offered a scrupulously musical and sometimes seductive Giovanni. I suspect that I might have been more enthusiastic, had I not experienced Erwin Schrott’s assumption of the role in the same production a little over a year ago. I am not convinced that Keenlyside is so at home with the demonic and Faustian as with the various guises of touching naïveté required in such varied roles as Pelléas, Papageno, or Billy Budd, yet there was nothing really to complain of here. Kyle Ketelsen was at least as good as he was last year, if anything better. Those – and I have heard them – who claim that Leporello is but a stock buffo character should have heard and seen him, to appreciate how the genius of Mozart’s music transforms an ordinary servant into a human being. There was once again a more or less perfect balance between comedy, charisma, and class struggle. His shaping of the musical lines was as impressive as Keenlyside’s.  Marina Poplavskaya was certainly vastly improved upon last year, when I had heard her step in at the last minute for the second act. Her tuning on this occasion was secure, but I still missed a sense of style. I can imagine her in Verdi roles, or as Tatyana, but here the line is too full of steel and somewhat lacking in grace. Joyce DiDonato presented quite a revisionist Elvira. There was none of the usual eroticism, such as we heard last year from Ana María Martínez. Yet in its place there was a striking transformation from a wronged yet determined woman, with none of the essentialist hysterical caricature that often characterises the role, to someone who really is driven mad by her experience. I suspect that DiDonato’s experience in Baroque opera informed this portrayal, as it did her flawless coloratura, even in a swift ‘Mi tradi’ that pushed towards the bounds of the acceptable in tempo. Ramón Vargas was a more Latin-sounding Ottavio than I am used to, but there is nothing wrong with that. He sang with great musicality, quickly recovering from a slight difficulty in a treacherous passage from ‘Il mio tesoro’. Robert Gleadow proved a fine Masetto, never sacrificing musical line for peasant gruffness, yet touching in the artful simplicity of his portrayal. As Zerlina, Miah Persson was quite outstanding: maintaining throughout a beautiful, sensitively spun line and supplying plenty of the eroticism lacking from Elvira. Only Eric Halfvarson was disappointing as a lightweight Commendatore.

That leaves the production. It has not improved with age. To stress the Christianity and indeed the Catholicism of the work and its predecessors is an excellent idea, which one might have expected to have represented some sort of norm, though alas not. Yet nothing is really done with this crucial background; instead, we have once again a backdrop of religious tat and that is just about it. Lavish and somewhat garish designs add to the feel of an upmarket musical, almost as much as in Francesca Zambello’s Carmen, also for the Royal Opera. If this is what attracts customers – judging by the Philistine applause following the stage pyrotechnics of Giovanni’s descent into Hell, I fear that it might – then let them stay at home. As for the confusion regarding the lack of a statue – to which Leporello nevertheless sings – and the appearance of a large, pointing, National Lottery finger, I despair. Producing Don Giovanni is an extremely difficult task, almost as difficult as performing it. The downright vulgarity of ‘bread and circuses’ is not an answer. Still, the music was the thing – and it was very good.


Financial times, 13th September 2008

Reviewed by Richard Fairman

Four stars

If any empty lager cans were left rolling around the floor, somebody had cleared them up. No – this was not one of those radical Mozart opera productions set among a group of skinheads on Brighton beach, but the previous performance had been reserved for readers of The Sun, courtesy of the Helen Hamlyn Trust, and some disapproving voices had expressed doubts in advance as to what kind of behaviour might be expected.

In the event, a good time was apparently had by all, not least those who caught the trio of Page 3 girls dressed as “opera-style wenches” greeting the audience.

To kick off the 2008-9 season the royal Opera had a couple of high-profile access initiatives. Audiences around the country were also offered the opportunity to see the opening night relayed live to around 50 cinemas in the UK, together with others in Spain, Germany, Austria, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. This is an idea that started life at the Metropolitan Opera in New York but the Royal Opera is catching up, and it is to be hoped that its ongoing series of operas in the cinema will enjoy equal success.

By the second night of Don Giovanni on Wednesday, everything had returned to normal. Francesca Zambello’s production remains as uninspiring as ever, but the Royal Opera has once again assembled a fine cast to try to breathe some life into it. Above all, the return of conductor Charles Mackerras guarantees an evening of Mozartian gold. Fleet and light-footed he prises character from every phrase, getting the “Champagne” aria to fizz, giving Leporello a spring in his step for the “Catalogue” aria, and turning the cello part in Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” into a brilliant solo turn. Mozart in Mackerras’s hands has become one of the great delights at the Royal Opera House in recent years.

Two casts share this run of nine performances. The first is headed by Simon Keenlyside’s sturdy Don Giovanni, making a welcome return alongside Kyle Ketelsen, a Leporello who plays up the comedy to lively effect. There are also return visits from Eric Halfvarson’s Commendatore and Marina Poplavskaya, whose Donna Anna, recovering from an infection, alternated beautiful passages in the middle of her voice with poorly controlled sounds at the top.

Aside from Mackerras, the first cast is most likely to be remembered for three singers who were essaying their roles for the first time – Joyce DiDonato, previously known for her agility in Rossini mezzo roles, who set the stage alight with her fiery Donna Elvira, showing no signs of strain in taking on a soprano part; and the delightful Miah Persson and Robert Gleadow, soprano and bass, who brought fresh voices to the young country couple, Zerlina and Masetto. The only disappointment was Ramon Vargas’s stiff Don Ottavio, whose singing lacked poetry, for all the welcome change of hearing a Latin tenor in the role.

The production itself remains a more serious drawback. Don Giovanni is an opera that holds problems for every director, but Zambello offered few solutions, and where she did come up with some ideas, they usually made matters worse. The single revolving wall that forms the set looks awful; the Catholic slant that she imposes is feebly argued and the ghastly wigs would send shop window mannequins running for cover. Even the columns of fire that flare up from the underworld in the final scene look less impressive than they used to.

Just think; if somebody crept into the theatre late at night and carelessly turned the gas jets on, the whole production might be burned to a cinder in minutes. To hell with it. Pass me the lighter.


Ditlev Rindom, Mundoclasico.com


Performance on 12 September 2008

Opposing forces at Covent Garden

Don Giovanni has variously been described as a tale of Faustian over-reaching, an essay on the dangers of political freedom, and even an investigation into repressed homosexuality. With its conflict between the libertine anti-hero -who simultaneously incites and repels our sympathies- and the law-abiding masses, the opera portrays a tension between decadence and conservatism, freedom and control, which is similarly enacted in the score’s own delicate balance between comedy and tragedy. Covent Garden was itself the site of such a cultural clash at the opening night of the new season, when all 2,200 tickets were bought by The Sun tabloid newspaper on behalf of its readers, in association with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. In a welcome bid to widen audience participation, the production was also broadcast live to cinemas nationwide, enabling those outside London equally to enjoy proceedings.

Returning to the house after his triumphant performances of Le Nozze di Figaro in July, Sir Charles Mackerras once again took the helm, conducting with an authority that only makes one hope Cosi Fan Tutte is soon to follow. As previously, his rapport with the orchestra and singers exemplified a relationship with the company that has lasted over forty years, and his handling of pace and feel for balance demonstrated a comparable level of familiarity with Mozart’s own work. Perhaps only in the overture did one have a sense of ruffled feathers, the ensemble not perfectly coordinated, but things quickly settled down and the Covent Garden orchestra themselves performed with their habitual polish.

Star of the show -at least on paper- was Simon Keenlyside, who followed in the footsteps of Bryn Terfel, Erwin Schrott and indeed himself (in 2002) by taking on the role of Don Giovanni in this particular production. Vocally and physically as virile as ever, he gave a commanding performance, if one that failed quite to set the sky alight as Keenlyside has been capable of on previous occasions. In ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, his piano singing was less than ideally velvety and familiarity alone ensured his assumption could not have the dizzying impact of Schrott’s debut in the role. Nonetheless, Keenlyside remains an excellent singer and a natural theatrical animal, and by the time of his remarkable top A in the finale, he had the audience firmly in the palm of his hand, as any good Don Giovanni should.

At Keenlyside’s right side was the Leporello of Kyle Ketelsen, who gave a superb performance, naïve and knowing as required, the authority of which reflects the fact that included amongst his other roles is that of Don Giovanni himself. In the ‘Catalogue Aria’, his immaculate sense of timing reduced the house to peals of laughter and in the disguise scenes of Act Two, his marvellous acting -or mugging, to be precise- provided the necessary counterfoil to the drama’s darker currents. Perhaps Covent Garden will soon treat us to a revival with Ketelsen in the title-role?

Alongside him, the other clear star of the evening was Joyce DiDonato, who brought the house down with her sensational performance as Donna Elvira. Arriving on stage in an open carriage, spear in hand like a budding Valkyrie, she delivered ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ with thrilling force, the intervallic leaps perfectly managed and consonants spat out like bullets from a gun. In turn, the pathos of her great recitative and aria ‘Il quali eccessi’ and ‘Mi tradi’ were handled with the beauty and introspection essential to the character’s role as a mezzo caraterre, whose emotional fluctuations match the opera’s own chronic generic instability. In DiDonato’s presentation, Donna Elvira rightly emerged as the most psychologically fascinating character alongside Giovanni himself: a woman trapped by desire, her inability to overcome or forgive his advances signals her own incapacity to control her sexual urges. As such, her dilemma functions as a metonym for the drama’s wider concerns about the impotence of human society alone to govern the raging libido of the dastardly Don – a conflict ultimately resolvable only by death.

The other two female roles were taken by Marina Poplavskaya as Donna Anna and Miah Persson as Zerlina. Persson has received great acclaim for her Mozart roles both at Covent Garden (Susanna) and at Glyndebourne (Fiordiligi) and here scored a hat-trick with a charming performance as the latest object of Don Giovanni’s affections, sung and acted with a sweetness of tone and lightness of touch that were ideal for the part. Unfortunately, praise for Poplavskaya cannot be quite so high. An intelligent and promising artist, her interpretation was nonetheless marred by consistent intonational problems and a tendency for the sound to curdle in the top registers -a problem that reached its apex, sadly, in ‘Non mi dir’, where the repeated high notes came out with evident physical effort. With three major roles in as many booking periods (including Elisabetta in Don Carlo), one cannot help wondering whether this young singer is being overexposed before her time.

The remaining three male roles were confidently assumed. As Don Ottavio, Ramon Vargas’ ungainly stage demeanour was highlighted by Keenlyside’s athletic dexterity and his performance veered, perhaps not inappropriately, on the edge of bland; but his two arias were elegantly sung and in the trio ‘Protegga il gusto cielo’ he blended together with his customary grace. Like Poplavskaya, Robert Gleadow is a graduate of the Jette Parker Young Artist scheme, and he performed Masetto with an authority and vigour that fully justified their investment. ‘Ho capito, signor, si!’ had all the necessary satirical edge and in his partnership with Persson, the two set up a wholly credible dynamic as newly-weds to be: the prettiest couple in all Seville, surely. As the Commendatore, Eric Halvarson was given a role that is iconic in more ways than one, and it was one he executed with predictable skill, completing a cast that by and large should have left no first-time opera-goers (Sun readers or otherwise) feeling disappointed.

The same, regrettably, could not be said for Francesca Zambello’s production, which remains as ghastly as when it was first seen in 2002. Although it has some nice touches -such as Donna Anna and Zerlina appearing silently to comfort Donna Elvira during her Act Two scena- even these are damned when the singers are left standing around awkwardly in lieu of adequate stage direction. With an array of gimmicky touches, from the ‘finger of fate’ that appears in the final scene to the giant flames that accompany Don Giovanni down to hell, Zambello’s production smacks of one driven by budgeting licence rather than ideas, where spectacle and vulgar effects have replaced thought and good sense. In that respect, one might say, Mozart’s opera still has a few salutary lessons to teach us.


A review of the online recording of Don Giovanni on the ROH website

Gramophone, November 2008

A horrendously wet Sunday meant that leaving the house was not an option so I went “in cyber-space” to the opera. On October 5, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden started screening its recent performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni from its website (www.roh.org.uk). There are some good features to set you up for the main event. Two notable Giovannis, Bryn Terfel and (the latest incumbent) Simon Keenlyside talk interestingly about the role and director Francesca Zambello gives her view (there’s also an interesting podcast which has much more from her – and she’s always good value).

The performance – which is divided into 12 sections for the webcast – was good if not gripping (and a fine Giovanni really should have you by the throat from the very start). Perhaps the most impressive thing about the entire performance was the quite wonderful conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras – from whom the years simply fall away the minute he steps onto the podium. I saw him at the Classic FM Gramophone Awards a week earlier and it was as if Mozart carries some extraordinary elixir! Which, of course, it clearly does judging by the energy the man draws from the music!

Keenlyside’s Giovanni was well sung and he has the torso to carry off the topless moments: opposite him Kyle Ketelsen (looking suitably like his master) offered a rather coarse characterisation as Leporello. Both Marina Poplovskaya (Anna) and Miah Persson (Zerlina) have more to offer than was seen here; but Joyce DiDonato as Donna Elvira was fabulous – fiery and really spirited. Here was one lady not to be crossed. Ramon Vargas was a rather lumpen Don Ottavio. It was only right at the end when Giovanni and the Commendatore have their fateful encounter that the tension levels soared.

There are all sorts of interesting features on the website, but finding the cast list for the production on-screen was not easy. This is clearly the start of a new venture for the Opera House – and probably has considerably more mileage than its recent initiative of special offers for readers of the Sun newspaper…


John Allison, Opera, November 2008

Royal Opera at Covent Garden and on screen at the Gate Cinema, Notting Hill, London, September 8

‘Sex pest strikes in sunny Spain’: this was the season-inaugurating Don Giovanni thrown open to readers of the Sun-incongruously, given that tabloid’s history of antagonism towards Covent Garden-in collaboration with the Hamlyn Foundation. It was also the first of the Royal Opera’s live cinecasts (see Geoff Brown’s review below), and the resolutely non-gala gala atmosphere was refreshing. Hard though it is to know how many people changed their paper-buying habits for a day in order to enter the ballot-most of those interviewed either claimed to be Guardianistas or owned up cheerfully to following the Sun-the audience was clearly made up of as many first-time opera-goers as first-time Sun readers. How do I know? They had an audibly better time than Covent Garden’s regular devotees, laughing along with Mozart’s dramma giocoso. A success, then.

But had anyone from the Sun checked out Francesca Zambello’s dismal production?

This Seville was not remotely sunny, and toplessness was confined mostly to the athletic Don Giovanni himself, Simon Keenlyside. But anyone new to opera was lucky to encounter one of this production’s best revivals, and old hands will not often have heard higher musical values than those enforced by Charles Mackerras’s lithe and dramatic conducting. Kyle Ketelsen’s funny, put-upon Leporello, Ramon Vargas’s richtoned Ottavio and Miah Persson’s delectably sung Zerlina were all compelling in their different ways; Eric Halfvarson’s black-toned Commendatore was more chilling than most, and Robert Gleadow was a lively Masetto. Only Marina Poplavskaya was disappointing: indisposition was pleaded for her squally Donna Anna. Most remarkable of all was Joyce DiDonato in her role debut as Donna Elvira, brightly focused and utterly secure. ‘Mi trad1’ was shaped with uncommon musicality (Mackerras’s accompaniment helped) and her beautifully charted vacillation between vengeance and imploring love made her the most interesting figure on stage. That’s how it should be, but seldom is.

George Hall, Opera, November 2008

Ice cream, soft drinks, hot dogs: the foyer facilities of the Gate Cinema wouldn’t pass muster at Co vent Garden’s Floral Hall. But on this particular evening, Keira Knightley’s latest film was elbowed out and Don Giovanni moved in-live from the Royal Opera House, captured by myriad cameras, mixed and transmitted to 113 cinemas across the UK and Europe through the miracle of digital technology. Courtesy of Opus Arte, Arts Alliance Media and City Screen, other live operas and performances from the ROH and elsewhere will follow throughout the season.

The Met in New York first beamed itself to cinemas in this way in 2006, but this was Covent Garden’s debut night. Glitches? Oh, just a few, chiefly among the peripherals, such as the linking comments of our effusive onscreen host, Antonio Pappano, struggling to stay suave with his autocue. Still, image crispness and colours were as impressive as they could probably ever be on the Notting Hill shoebox’s little screen. For all the clumsiness and triviality of Francesca Zambello’s production, at least we could feel the textures of Maria Bj0rnson’s costumes, from Simon Keenlyside’s red crushed velvet as Giovanni to the striking blue finery worn by Ramon Vargas’s Ottavio.

Sound? Loudspeakers will always drain away a live performance’s juices-even if the singing is better than Keenlyside, Vargas and Miah Persson managed on this opening night, even with Joyce DiDonato terrific as Donna Elvira, and Charles Mackerras in the pit making the ROH orchestra crackle. Watching from our shoebox, we were trapped in a strange limbo, neither fully in Co vent Garden nor out of it. The show was the same, but not the sound. Nor was our visual perspective, which was shaped entirely by the cameras leaping between long shot, mid shot, static gaze and prowl, in images hazardously blended on the spot by the transmission’s hard-working director, Robin Lough. What this relay did, essentially, was to recreate the desperate working conditions of live television drama 50 years ago, with the ROH stage as the TV studio, and the shoebox cinema as the TV screen. Ah, the wonders of progress.

There were some benefits. In a production whose characters are so often dwarfed by Björnson’s cursed and clunky semi-circular wall of a set, it was helpful sometimes to move in to eyes, winks and grimaces, especially when the singing itself fell short in expression, as with Keenlyside’s Giovanni, or Persson’s Zerlina. But close scrutiny also supplied extra irritants, like Kyle Ketelsen’s low comedy as Leoporello, or the handprints built into the semi-circle’s gnarled surface, which suggested the drama was unfolding before some Holocaust memorial. The cameras also didn’t improve the look of Keenlyside’s bared chest.

After three and a half hours watching Don Giovanni cramped and jostled onto a shoebox screen, I emerged with some relief. Such a frustrating night: so close to a live night at the opera, and yet so far.


Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 21 September 2008


Covent Garden’s new season kicked off on stage – and on the silver screen

Opera and the cinema might seem perverse bedfellows, but film directors from Luchino Visconti to Anthony Minghella have found success in the opera house, and the art form continues to fascinate masters of the silver screen. Only two weekends ago, Woody Allen became the latest film-maker to cross over to the lyric theatre, in a production of Puccini’s anarchic, mercurial comedy Gianni Schicchi, for Los Angeles Opera. Initial reports suggest a triumph.

Taking opera into the cinema, at least until quite recently, has been more problematic. Successful opera films can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, but now live opera in cinemas seems to be all the rage. After Peter Gelb’s pioneering high-definition cinecasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera last season achieved audience figures beyond the Met general manager’s wildest dreams, the rest of the world’s great opera houses have lined up for a slice of the action. The Royal Opera dipped its toes in cinematic waters last season with the showing of preexisting televised productions: Glyndebourne and La Scala followed suit. And the opening of Covent Garden’s 2008/09 season, just under two weeks ago, saw the first night of Francesca Zambello’s revived 2002 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni beamed to 113 cinemas across Britain and Europe. The performance itself had been reserved for readers of The Sun newspaper at low prices (£170 seats were reduced to £30), subsidised by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The Sun’s marketing was brilliantly brash and tongue-in-cheek – the plot of Don Giovanni wittily headlined “Sex Pest Strikes in Spain” – and refreshingly unsnooty, but I opted to see the opening night at the Gate cinema, in Notting Hill. The audience there looked more like traditional first-nighters in Bow Street, sinking into the Gate’s sumptuous red-velvet armchairs and sipping champagne at their seats.

Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, gamely fronted the operation as “your host for the evening”, providing the intros to each of the acts and a recorded interview with the conductor, Charles Mackerras, as well as a live one with Zambello. Despite a couple of continuity glitches, Pappano did a fine job. The production might not have been an ideal representation of the Royal Opera at its finest – the late Maria Björnson’s darkly lit and cheap-looking sets didn’t thrive under the scrutiny of the camera, and Zambello’s chaotic blocking of the big chorus scenes looked even messier in close-up – but Covent Garden had assembled a reasonably cinegenic cast, even if it was probably unwise of Simon Keenlyside’s Giovanni to bare so much flesh at this stage of his career.

There was some excellent singing, particularly from Joyce DiDonato’s feisty Elvira, storming the stage with her rifle in pursuit of her errant supposed husband like a “lipstick pitbull”, but with a heart. The role lies high for a mezzo-soprano, but DiDonato negotiated its stratosphere more comfortably than most and made a consistently lovely and thrilling sound. Kyle Ketelsen returned as a hyper-active, darkly sardonic Leporello, while the tall, handsome young Canadian Robert Gleadow made a striking postprogramme debut as Masetto, and will surely soon be in demand as either Leporello or Don Giovanni. Marina Poplavskaya was recovering from a respiratory infection, but her singing as Anna displayed her now familiar intonation problems, raw tone and thickly accented Italian. Even the delightful Miah Persson’s Zerlina seemed below par. (She recovered some of her expected radiance in the theatre two nights later.) Eric Halfvarson boomed grandly as the Commendatore, and it was a rare treat to hear Ramon Vargas’s big, Italianate style in Don Ottavio’s two arias, though he is a wooden actor. Opera in the cinema may not be the same as the real thing, but its availability country- and worldwide has to be a good thing. The attentive Notting Hill audience clearly thought so, applauding loudly at the end.


AC Grayling, Times Literary supplement


The great operas can be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly without ever losing their freshness and power, and they therefore provide directors and artists with rich opportunities. Francesca Zambello’s funny, fast-paced, exhilarating Don Giovanni is a remarkable illustration of this fact. Given a cast of this quality, outstanding staging opportunities, and a director of Zambello’s genius, and Don Giovanni feels as if it is bursting on the world for the first time all over again.

This production is a gem of what I cannot but persist in calling the new opera – the genuinely theatrical opera with excellent singers who look and can act the part properly, such a far cry from the voice-alone based opera of the past, where hefty middle-aged artistes stood rooted to the stage and belted out the roles of youthful lovers. A great deal has changed in opera because of what the possibilities of real theatricality add to the music, and this is what directors like Zambello have taken up and applied with relish.

And the depth of outstanding talent that the last few decades of voice and acting training has nurtured is evidenced in the fact that every single role in this production is performed at top star quality. Simon Keenlyside is a rumbustious and irresponsible Don, Kyle Ketelson a very funny Leporello, Joyce DiDonato a superbly angry, hurt and still-besotted Donna Elvira, Miah Persson a delicious Zerlina, Marina Poplavskaya a stately, grieving, vengeful Donna Anna, and Ramon Vargas rescues Don Ottavio from being an ineffectual posturer and finds the dignity in his hesitating mixture of supportiveness and desire. Each role has been thought out and sharply realised by director and respective performer, and jointly make a convincing whole.

There is an absorbing debate about what Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart meant by their portrayal of Don Giovanni. Is he an Enlightenment hero, defying traditional religious morality even as the flames of hell engulf him, living a life of pleasure on ‘libertine’ principles as these were understood by the members of the Hellfire Club and the philosophes of the Age of Reason? Or is this wonderful work an essay in conventional morality, in which dissolution merits its punishment, and is a lesson to us all?

It is hard to believe that Mozart and da Ponte avoided irony and sincerely wished to reinforce ethical clichés. Neither this work nor Mozart’s other operas leave one feeling that the surface meaning exhausts all its meaning. On one level, certainly, the conventions of morality are fulsomely observed: Don Giovanni recklessly pursues sexual adventure, even to the point of killing the father of someone he has tried to rape: and surely, for this alone, he deserves in eighteenth century terms to be dragged to eternal torment. He drives a coach and horses not only through moral and sexual conventions, but social ones; the women he pursues are from every class – a different sort of crime in its day. He makes and breaks promises carelessly, he bullies, he is oblivious to everything but his own enjoyment – and that in particular includes being oblivious to the pain and distress of those he hurts.

But the other side of the picture has Don Giovanni as a democrat, a lover of life, an embracer of the pleasures of sense, an independent spirit, and a brave, frank, audacious spurner of convention. The music and the drama together offer these ambiguities, even if a government censor of Mozart’s own day could find nothing specific to complain about, even if he sensed that he should be uneasy about the message overall: the overtones would plague him, though the note seem true to the key required.

Francesca Zambello has taken the subtitle – Il dissoluto punito – as her text, and made this unequivocally a story of a bad man and his rightfully bad end. There is no disguising the fact that the Don’s clumsy and generally fruitless efforts at seduction – hardly seduction: they are mostly attempted rapes – and his disregard for the interests and feelings of others make us sympathise with the angry adversaries he collects in increasing numbers as the story unfolds. And then there is that denouement, when the Commendatore has him in an icy grip, and the flames shoot up all round him: whose side are we on then, even in Zambello’s judicial rendering? Such is the question a great work of art asks: all the more acutely for being posed in such a great production.

Carla Silverfin, 9/2008

” … and now I’ve been back again to see Simon Keenlyside’s take on things. … The main reason I attended this performance was because I wanted to see Keenlyside in the role, and overall I was very impressed indeed. He seemed to have thought a great deal about his interpretation of the character, and how he wanted to portray him. He was convincingly nasty, still seductive when he wanted to be, but ready to progress quickly to violence when the charm failed. However, he was not entirely without softer emotions beneath the hard shell. It intially seemed a rather odd thing to do for the Don to kiss the Commendatore after stabbing him (peck, not snog) and then cuddle up to the corpse for a minute or two until interrupted by Leporello; the interpretation that sprang to my mind was that he had lost his own father when young, or perhaps never knew him, and was significantly affected by never having a father figure while growing up. (This is probably wildly inaccurate from a historical point of view. Neither am I suggesting that children brought up without a father grow up misogynistic and murderous!) Anyway, enough of the thoughtful stuff; if you have one of the fittest baritones on the scene, you might as well make use of him, and this was parkour opera, with plenty of window-jumping, wall-climbing (yes, right to the top, unlike certain other baritones’ attempts), and singing of arias while hanging off the trellis by one arm. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I have heard him sing better on other occasions, although it was still very good. It’s possible this role doesn’t suit him so well vocally, but the overall package was excellent, so it really wasn’t an issue for me. … “













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ekaterina shapinskaya August 16, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Viva la liberta: a free hero on the spaces of postculture.
Eraterina Shapinskaya, D.Phil, Professor, Chief researcher, Russian Institute for Cultural research.
Paper to be presented on Fourth Russian Cultural Congress, St. Petersburg, November 2013.
IV Российский культурологический конгресс с международным участием «Личность в пространстве культуры», Санкт-Петербург, 29–31 октября 2013 года. Тезисы и выступления участников. — СПб: Эйдос, 2013. ISBN 978-5-904745–39-4
Шапинская Е.Н. Н Viva la liberta: свободная личность на пространствах посткультуры [Электронный ресурс] / Е.Н.Шапинская // IV Российский культурологический конгресс с международным участием «Личность в пространстве культуры», Санкт-Петербург, 29–31 октября 2013 года. Тезисы и выступления участников. — СПб: Эйдос, 2013. — Режим доступа: http://culturalnet.ru/main/congress_person/1118.
Here is an abstract containing the analysis of ROH production of Don Giovanni directed by Francesca Zambello. Before that the philosophical ideas of existentialism on Don Juan were regarded as well as romantic concept. Accordingly, the productions of Salzburg Festival (1954) and Arena di Verona (20012) were examined.
…Another reading of Don Juan as a demythologized character devoid of existentialist lust for life and the joy of another victory as well as the stereotype looks of a lover-hero, though not of a certain charisma has been done by Francesca Zambello in the ROH production (2002, 2008). In this version there are no external signs of modernity (motorcycles, cell phones and other gadgets) which are so common in the productions of classical works these days. It is the other way round – the costumes and the wigs of opera characters bear reference to baroque or rococo epochs, and minimalist stage setting emphasizes the color scheme which shows very clearly the social placement of the characters…. The deliberate distancing from the signs of our days allows one to feel more acutely the universalism of this vagrant story which has not been overcome in “postculture” which has rather imbibed all the complexities of civilisation than resolved or at least explained them. As to the main character performed brilliantly by Simon Keenlyside who has had quite different Dons in his career, he is completely devoid of any romantic aura or joy and fullness of life (here is the reference to the earlier part of the paper analyzing different represenations of Don Giovanni). The audience sees an absolutely cynical and experienced aristocrat who is already feeling his doom. Don Giovanni in the interpretation of Francesca Zambello known for her feminist outlook is, on the one hand, the symbol of exhaustion of aristocratic culture, and on the other – of the end of the epoch of male domination. Sharp social accents express not so much the strive for historic reconstruction of a transitional epoch as the expression of postcultural liminality and pluralism, where the positions of different groups are mobile and often unpredictable. The condition of the characters of this version of “Don Giovanni” is also unstable, though social positions are made clear, but they are not fixed and have a potential of transforming from one state to another, as it happens with Leporello. The principle of freedom declared by Don Giovanni at his ball, where he feels confident being on his territory, is confronted with negative reaction of Mazetto, the person of the approaching new world, who is going to declare new ideals of freedom to the world. From the point of view of social and gender positioning Francesca Zambello’s version is not an example of postmodern deconstruction of binarisms, on the contrary, Don Giovanni has clear relations with all the other characters, who, by their exact placement in stage space, resemble the characters of puppet theatre (where “Don Juan” is quite popular even now). Simon Keenlyside’s hero is certain of his right to act according to a spontaneous whim, and failures are regarded as irritating hindrances which have to be overcome this or that way. Irony in treatment of Don Giovanni’s character is based not only on subjectivity of director’s approach but on ambivalence of opera text which allows both for serious and humorous treatment, in this case that of postmodern irony. As we know, the genre of the opera was defined as “drama giocoso”. The wit of L.da Ponte’s text in combination with wonderful music bring “…humour and tragedy…to the essentially grim story of a serial seducer who escapes all retribution except death.” Emphasizing the comic aspect of the opera F.Zambello, on the one hand, legitimately brings it close to opera buffa tradition, on the other – uses deconstruction of mythical and romantic notions of the Seville seducer. Don Giovanni in Simon Keenlyside’s interpretation is “driven by a compulsive sexual hunger: his cruelty to male rivals was as pathological as his cruelty to female conquests, the personification of rancid negativity. Stripped naked at the end, he cuts a pretty miserable figure, but his voice still carried a baleful authority.” Such humiliation of the hero can be regarded both as deconstruction of traditional image of sexual irresistibility a nd as “symbolic annihilation of male” undertaken by a feminist-oriented director as an answer to numerous “symbolic annihilations of women” both in traditional and in popular culture. The idea of A.Giddens about exhaustion of seduction (elaborated earlier in the present paper) is demonstrated in total mechanicism of Don Giovanni’s treatment of women, in marked artifice of his ways and irritation when he has to continue the game of seduction. His cynicism is based on mysoginism and seems both “believably seductive and chillingly menacing”.
Deconstruction of traditional image of Don Juan goes in all directions. Appearance of Simon Keenlyside’s hero is completely opposite of the traditional stereotype idea of the Spanish senior with burning black eyes – here the colorless appearance is accented by flaming red of the costume which would have suited a totally different character, and the bored and cynical expression shows the indifference of the hero to all his “victims” and contempt towards those who are lower on the social ladder. The code of behaviour has also been violated – Don Giovanni kills Commendatore not in a duel but with a dagger, laughing in the face of the dying man. One may ask: What could be attractive in such a hero? In the only scene of the opera where Don Giovanni demonstrates his gifts of seduction – in the scene with Zerlina – the accent is placed not on sensual attraction or eroticism, but on the clear calculation of the girl considering the possibility of social upgrading. Zerlina is a complex character, like Leporello, they are both marginal personalities striving to achieve a higher status and at the same time not willing to sever the existing connections. In case of Zerlina this transitional status is quite clear, she “want and does not want” to respond to the advances of a “caballiero”. “In the character of Zerlina there lives the rhytm of rococo and revolution. She is not a shepherdess any longer but still not a citoyenne. The refers to an instant between them, and humanism emerges in her for a moment, not distorted by feudal compulsion and protected from bourgeois barbarism”. Though Zerlina is not forced directly by “caballiero”, since he needs her willful consent, she is ready to forget her bridegroom for the temptations of aristocratic life reified in coffee, chocolate, wine, music and dances. When she is faced with direct sexual assault the girl escapes Don Giovanni in terror and finds consolation in the arms of Mazetto who is full of righteous fury and desire for revenge. Don is shown as “half – powerless feudal devoid of jus prima noctis… he becomes the herald of lust, which is rather funny for the people who rather quickly deprived him of this right. The fearless hero taught them the ideal of freedom. But, having become common, this ideal turns against him.”
Where is the freedom declared by Don Giovanni and all his guests? In fact, nobody needs it except himself – Donna Anna after the decent period of mourning will settle in peaceful life with boring but reliable Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira will find a safe place in the walls of the monastery, Zerlina and Mazetto – heroes of new times – feel quite comfortable in their peasant-cum-proletarian happiness, even marginal Leporello has to find a new lord, since he is incapable of independent existence. Only Don Juan himself remained free – in spite of his vice approaching perversion and total contempt to everybody around, in the final scene he is shown as an embodiment of the triumph of his hedonistic egoistic principles. For an instant he is shown naked holding a girl, also naked, on the flaming background of hell where he continues his hedonistic existence. Eve from the other world the unrepenting sinner laughs at everybody who lives according to norms, and this is the last joke of the hero who is guided only by his own rules.

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